Heidegger and Vandana Shiva: Science, Violence and the Saving Power

Trish Glazebrook, Washington State University


© Trish Glazebrook 2015

Vandana Shiva is one of the world’s leading environmental and social justice activists and critics. Given her background in physics, it is unsurprising that a critique of Western science and technology is foundational to her thinking. Her analysis of science and technology has much in common with Heidegger’s. This paper explores this common ground, examines her political contextualization of the issues sorely lacking in Heidegger’s analysis, and shows what her analysis has to gain from Heidegger’s work on the mathematization of nature. I conclude with a comment on the “saving power” in Heidegger’s critique of technology—a liberation ontology revealed in women’s agricultural practices in the global South.

Common Ground

Heidegger and Shiva both hold that modern science and technology violently assault nature and are ontologically and epistemologically reductive. Each assesses modern science at its origin in the work of Francis Bacon. Shiva reads Merchant on Bacon’s use of witch trial discourse,[1] and Bacon himself says that he intends to investigate nature “ constraint and vexed ... when by art and the hand of man she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded.”[2] Much has been made of Bacon’s misogyny—the nature he “puts to the question”[3] is for him “she,” but critics have warned against taking his metaphors literally.[4]

Heidegger’s account of violence is more complex, and he does not discuss it when reading Bacon. He notes that the Baconian experiment is an “the argumentum ex re instead of the argumentum ex verbo,”[5] only to reject that it is thereby a return to experience. The experiment produces more reliable data than ordinary experience, but this data is not empirical in the Aristotelian sense of empeiria, experience, i.e. what is encountered “without one’s having to do anything.”[6][7] It is in contrasting Aristotelian science against Newtonian in Die Frage nach dem Ding in 1935-6 that Heidegger first indicates how he thinks modern science is violent. He cites Aristotle on bia. For Aristotle, motion is violent when it goes against a thing’s telos. E.g. rocks are teleologically drawn to the centre, so a rock thrown upwards is subject to violent motion.[8] Newtonian science cannot make this distinction between violent and non-violent motion because there is no room for Aristotelian teleology in Newton’s mechanistic universe where motion is reduced to locomotion driven by efficient causes. Thus experiments manifest a kind of hermeneutic violence, by forcing natural entities to behave in ways they would not left to themselves, that remains concealed due to loss of the conceptual tool necessary to see it, i.e. Aristotle’s bia.[9]

Techne is violent in this sense because it appropriates entities reduced to matter upon which to impose form. The artisan works where natural processes are inadequate to satisfy human intention. Incipient here in 1935-6 lectures is the Gestell of technology—the assault that reduces nature to Bestand, resource. Indeed, in the Beiträge, soon after the lectures, Heidegger identifies experiment as “a necessary and prime component of knowledge” only once it is a “setting up of nature [Ansetzung der Natur].”[10] The idea that scientific understanding requires projection has been with Heidegger since his 1916 argument distinguishing science from history through projection of its time concept,[11]and appeared again in §69 of Sein und Zeit.[12] Emerging in the mid-1930s is the idea that modern science is violent. In the early 1950s, Heidegger will argue in Was Heisst Denken? that science is grounded in the essence of technology,[13] and that the essence of technology is an assault upon nature. Modern science “pursues and entraps nature as...a coherence of forces calculable in advance,” while technology reduces nature to “the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve.”[14] Science is thus for Heidegger conceptually violent in that it is reductive, while technological reduction of nature to resource “sets upon [stellt] nature”[15] in what Heidegger calls in the Nietzsche volumes, “the organized global conquest of the earth.”[16] The connection between the ideology and the praxis, however, remains unclear.

Shiva likewise argues that modern science and technology, which are just as essentially complicit for her as they are for Heidegger, together constitute a violent and reductive project of global conquest. She argues that in modern science, “sources of regeneration and renewal of life are transformed into inert and fragmented matter, mere ‘raw material’ to be processed into a finished product,”[17] much as he argued in the technology essay that nature is reduced to resource. Shiva argues that “reductionist science is at the root of the growing ecological crisis, because it entails a transformation of nature such that its organic processes and regularities and regenerative capacities are destroyed.”[18] This transformation is the move to a mechanistic model, and Shiva notes that “the metaphor of nature as machine was based on the assumption of divisibility and manipulability.”[19] In manipulation of nature “as inert and fragmented matter,” Shiva tells us, “nature’s capacity for regeneration and renewal was reduced.”[20] Shiva is thus highly critical of the limitations of understanding nature according to the technoscientific model that inverts knowledge insofar as it displaces understanding nature as regenerative, nurturing process in favour of destructive praxes of technoscience. The modern scientific worldview denies nature’s reproductive function, and instead privileges production. In Shiva’s analysis, then, scientific reductionism promotes a three-fold exclusion that is“(i) ontological, in that other [natural] properties are just not taken note of; (ii) epistemological, in that other ways of perceiving and knowing are not recognized, and (iii) sociological, in that the non-specialist and the non-expert is deprived of the right both to access to knowledge and to judging claims made on its behalf.”[21] Modern science thereby “reduced the capacity of humans to know nature both by excluding other knowers and other ways of knowing.”[22] When modern science “declares organic systems of knowledge irrational, and rejects the belief systems of others” it does so “without full rational evaluation.”[23] Violence is thus done not just to nature and to people, but to knowledge itself. Shiva accordingly characterizes the “destruction of ecologies and knowledge systems ... as the violence of reductionism.”[24] Heidegger argues likewise that the danger of technology is that it “drives out every other possibility of revealing,”[25]i.e. takes itself to be the only truth.

Heidegger and Shiva agree, then, that modern science and technology together constitute a reductive and violent assault that limits knowledge. Where they part ways, further analysis does not uncover disagreement, but shows that each has something to contribute to the thinking of the other.

From Shiva to Heidegger

Shiva exceeds Heidegger in that her analysis is unabashedly political. Her ecofeminist critique is uncritically gendered. She accepts that Bacon is misogynistic, and sometimes says “masculinist” rather than “modern” science. Enough has been done that I need not here make the arguments that modern science is gender-biased,[26] but I note Heidegger’s dismissal of gender in the 1928 lecture course published as The Metaphysical Foundation of Logic.[27] In §10 Heidegger says that Dasein “is neither of the two sexes” but that this “sexlessness is not the indifference of an empty void...but the primordial positivity and potency of the essence,”[28] and he goes on to use gender to demonstrate Dasein’s “thrown dissemination into a multiplicity.”[29] I am not aware of anywhere else that he addresses gender, and it does not figure in his assessment of science and technology. Introducing Shiva’s heavily gendered analysis would be simply a kind of trivial house-keeping, except for one thing: Shiva’s critique of the function of gender in science and technology’s role in colonialism and development.

            Shiva’s motivation for concern about the reductive nature of modern science is the destruction of the resource base in developing nations and the exclusion of traditional knowledge systems through the imposition of patriarchal capitalism on colonized peoples. Science may have the limitations detailed above, but “as a system of knowledge for the market, it is powerful and profitable.”[30] She argues that the “relationship between reductionism, violence and profits is built into the genesis of masculinist science, for its reductionist nature is an epistemic response to an economic organisation based on uncontrolled exploitation of nature for maximization of profits and capital accumulation.”[31] Patriarchal capitalism achieves the “ultimate reductionism ... when nature is linked with a view of economic activity in which money is the only gauge of value and wealth.”[32] Heidegger’s apolitical assessment of technology falls short of the critique of capital necessary to an understanding of how the essence of technology organizes a global conquest of the earth, precisely because he rejects gender difference.

            In the technology essay, Heidegger argues that

Essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.[33]


And he suggests that “such a realm is art.”[34] His account of art in the art essay, written some two decades before the technology essay but revised shortly before writing the latter, suggest that the question of the origin of the work of art is not how it comes to be, but rather that art is itself an originary event of world-opening. Kalle Lasn bemoans the contemporary appropriation of art and design by the advertising industry in contemporary media,[35] and calls for a new aesthetic that is socially and environmentally responsible.[36] At the same time Heidegger was writing the art essay, in 1936, Walter Benjamin was critiquing “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”[37] because film, for example, provides such a flood of images that there is no opportunity for judgement about the meaning of a work of art. Hitler’s use of film as a propaganda tool is a startling example, especially given his commission of Triumph of the Will to Leni Riefenstahl in 1935,[38] the year before Benjamin’s essay. Heidegger never seems to give up hope for what the Frankfurt School called “auratic art,” the singular artwork that is authentic in its uniqueness that is lost in reproduction. This authenticity is outside the technical, Benjamin argues, and likewise Heidegger holds in the art essay that art is like technology but fundamentally different. The contemporary experience of art is, however, appropriated by the essence of technology—as Adorno bemoans, in the age of regressive listening, music, for example, is reduced to its fetish character through commodification.[39] Contemporary art is at the very heart of technology, for it serves to drive consumer culture, i.e. so-called “late capitalism,” through advertising.

            Gender, however, is exactly the liminal place for essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it. Women live both inside the world-opening that is the essence of technology, yet are othered outsiders because of their marginalization in the phallic order. Likewise, women in the global South live inside a globalized essence of technology in their on-the-ground reality of the lived experience of colonialism and post-colonial economics, yet outside global capital in their subsistence livelihoods. This is not to idealize their situation, which is horrific in the global indifference to their plight in poverty: women’s subsistence economies are being destroyed by global climate change, while a global land grab has been displacing them from their land for decades. By bringing Shiva’s analysis to Heidegger’s critique of technology, his one-dimensional critique is opened to a critique of capital. For what the destruction of resources and the destruction of knowledge-bases share is a displacement of women’s agricultural and other livelihood practices in favour of corporate, male-owned industrialization. The gender gap in development has been well documented,[40] as well as the invisibility of women’s labour despite their crucial role in the subsistence economies that underwrite and make possible the exchange economy of capital.

Shiva’s assessment does not, however, have a theoretical connection between technoscience and capital, other than historical contingency and a mass of case studies showing how particular technologies have served to empower colonizers. Heidegger’s account of the mathematization of nature can provide that theoretical link. Once the link is made, reflection upon technology is not so essential, and confrontation with it not so decisive—as if Ereignis, the event of being that determines a historical epoch, is ever in any way in human control. Rather, women’s agricultural practices in the global South provide a quiet revolution, an unremarked model of care in the daily reproduction of the material conditions of life. For their work is not a trivial exercise of a small group. According to the FAO some three decades ago, women are globally 70% of agricultural workers and 80% of food producers.[41] More recently, in Ghana, for example, women were growing 70% of food crops in 2003 (GPRS I 2003),[42] but 87% by 2010 (Social Watch Coalition 2010).[43] Women’s agriculture is a practice that opens worlds for billions.

From Heidegger to Shiva

In Die Frage nach dem Ding, Heidegger addresses “the mathematical projection of nature.”[44] He argues that when Descartes makes the ego cogito the foundation of knowledge, “the mathematical as the axiomatic project posits itself as the authoritative principle of knowledge.”[45] In Descartes’ method, the ego cogito is an axiom from which other truths can subsequently be deduced. Newton likewise begins with “axiomata,” or laws, of motion.[46] Heidegger's description of science as mathematical echoes Newton's own phrase for his work, the “mathematical principles of philosophy,”[47] and Heidegger is reading the Principia at the time.[48] But Heidegger finds more to “the mathematical” here than simply the claim that modern science is axiomatic, like geometry. Rather, “the mathematical” is “[the] fundamental position we take toward things by which we take up things as already given to us ... the fundamental presupposition of the knowledge of things.”[49] It can be learned because it is built into assumptions—the a priori found in experience because it is projected there. Hence modern science knows “objects,” for what it projects is objectivity.

Shortly thereafter, however, in the Beiträge, Hediegger will argue that “Because modern “science” (physics) is mathematical (not empirical), therefore it is necessarily experimental in the sense of the measuring experiment, and he subsequently refers to the representational thinking of the science throughout Was Heisst Denken? as “calculative thinking,”[50] while likewise characterizing nature in the Ge-stell of technology as what can be reckoned. In his 1955 Memorial Address in honour of Conradin Kreutzer, he still holds that for the scientist, the world “appears as an object open to the attacks of calculative thought.”[51] Shiva can take from Heidegger that modern science underwrites capitalist exploitations because mathematization prepares nature for economic reduction by setting it up as objectively reckonable. For scientific projection of objectivity renders invisible all values beyond calculable expense and revenue invisible. Women’s unpaid labour, for example, or the value of a tree to the diverse species active in the healthy functioning of the forest ecosystem, have no point of entry into the cost-benefit analyses of economic reckoning, and remain ontologically persistent only as so-called “externalities.”

Liberation Ontology: the Saving Power

Shiva documents the displacement of traditional agricultural practices in India by the so-called “Green Revolution” that was “based not on cooperation with nature, but on its conquest”[52] and favoured the use of fertilizers, monocultures, and mechanization. Such approaches “turned fertile tracts of the American prairies into a desert in less than thirty years.”[53] These strategies were to free Indian agriculture from “the ‘shackles of the past,’”[54] but actually showed “lack of respect for nature’s processes and people’s knowledge.”[55] Thus “diverse knowledge of local cultivators and plant breeders was displaced ... [by] experts breeding a small set of new varieties.”[56] Systems that had functioned for centuries “in accordance with nature’s limits in order to ensure the renewability of plant life and soil fertility”[57] became perceived as constraints to be overcome by science. This is exactly the danger Heidegger uncovered: technology pushes out all other ways of revealing in its global assault upon nature, knowledge and people, and against it he called for other ways of revealing, poetic truths he elsewhere characterized as “cultivating and caring [Pflegen und Hegen].”[58]

Shiva argues likewise for a different practice of agriculture—organic-based strategies based on traditional practices “built up over generations on the basis of knowledge generated over centuries.”[59] She seeks to reinstate “organic metaphors, in which concepts of order and power were based on interdependence and reciprocity”[60] and on “preserving and building on nature’s process and nature’s patterns.”[61] She quotes Dr. John Augustus Voelker’s 1889 report to the Royal Agricultural Society of England on the improvement of Indian agriculture: “I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation.”[62] The expertise he is describing is subsistence agriculture, which is overwhelmingly practiced by women. On its basis, Shiva argues that the “experience of interdependence and integrity is the basis for creating a science and knowledge that nurtures, rather than violates, nature’s sustainable systems.”[63] Heidegger’s promise of a saving power may yet be realized through women’s traditional practices of subsistence agriculture in developing nations.


[1] Carolyn Merchant (1989) The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) ; cf. Carolyn Merchant (2007) “Secrets of Nature: the Bacon Debates Revisited” Journal of the History of Ideas 69, no. 1, 147-62.

[2] Francis Bacon (1980) New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, ed. Jerry Weinberger, rev.ed. (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson), 27.

[3] To be “put to the question” during the Inquisition meant being subjected to torture to extract a confession.

[4] P. Pesic (2008) “Proteus Rebound: Reconsidering the Torture of Nature” Isis 99, no. 2, 304-17.

[5] Martin Heidegger (1994) “Die Zeit des Weltbildes” Holzwege (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann), 82; William Lovitt, tr. (1977) “The Age of the World Picture” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row), 122. Cf. Martin Heidegger (1994) Beiträge zur Philosophie (vom Ereignis), Gesamtausgabe, Band  65 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann), 162-4, in translation, Martin Heidegger (1999) Contributions to Philosophy (from Enowning), tr. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press),112-14. All subsequent references to Heidegger’s Gesamtausgabe  will be given using the abbreviation GA followed by the volume number s; the first time, full bibliographic information for an English translation will be given, but subsequently only the page number will be given immediately following the page number of the German edition. Bacon (1980), 24.

[6] GA 65 160/110. Bacon (1980) argues that “the office of the sense shall be only to judge the experiment, and that the experiment itself shall be the judge of the thing,” (24) because the experiment is more reliable than experience in that “sense fails in two ways” (24) that can be rectified in the experiment.

[7] Bacon (1980), 24.

[8] Martin Heidegger (1987) Die Frage nach dem Ding (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag), 68, hereafter cited as FD; Martin Heidegger (1993) Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper & Row), 264; Aristotle (1929) Physics, Books I-IV, P.H. Wicksteed and F.M. Cornford, trans. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 5.6.230a32, hereafter cited using the Bekker number. 

[9] Cf. Trish Glazebrook (2001) “Violence Against Nature: A Philosophical Perspective” Journal of Power and Ethics: An Interdisciplinary Review 2, no. 4, 322-343 for a fuller account of violence towards nature in this sense, Trish Glazebrook (2000) “From physis to nature, technê to technology: Heidegger on Aristotle, Galileo and Newton” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 38, no. 1, 95-118 for a fuller account of the conceptual displacement of Aristotle’s teleological conception of nature by Newton’s mechanistic and some consequences, and Trish Glazebrook (1998) “Heidegger on the Experiment” Philosophy Today 42, no. 3, 250-261 for a fuller analysis of Heidegger’s argument that experimental evidence is not empirical.

[10] GA 65, 163/113.

[11] Martin Heidegger, “Der Zeitbegriff in der Geschichtswissenschaft” Frühe Schriften, Gesamtausgabe, Band 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klosterman, 1978), 413-33.

[12] Martin Heidegger (1953) Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag), hereafter SZ; (1962) Being and Time, trs. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row).

[13] Martin Heidegger (1997) Was Heisst Denken? (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1997), 155, hereafter WHD; What Is Called Thinking? tr. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 135. Cf. Martin Heidegger (1997) “Die Frage nach der Technik,” Vorträge und Aufsätze (Stuttgart: Günther Neske Verlag), 9-40; 25-6, hereafter VA; Lovitt (1977) “The Question Concerning Technology,” 3-35; 21-2, and Martin Heidegger (1977) “Neuzeitliche Naturwissenschaft und moderne Technik,” Research in Phenomenology 7, 1-2.

[14] VA, 25; Lovitt (1977), 21.

[15] VA, 18; Lovitt (1977), 15.

[16] Martin Heidegger (1997) Nietzsche II, Gesamtausgabe, Band 6.2 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann), 358; Martin Heidegger (1982) Nietzsche, Vol 4: Nihilism, tr. Frank A, Capuzzi (New York: Harper & Row), 248.

[17] Mies and Shiva (1993), 26.

[18] Vandana Shiva (1988) Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India (London: Zed Books), 24.

[19] Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva (1993), Ecofeminism (London: Zed Books), 23.

[20] Mies and Shiva (1993), 23.

[21] Shiva (1988), 30.

[22] Mies and Shiva (1993), 23.

[23] Shiva (1988), 26.

[24] Shiva (1988), 26.

[25] VA, 31; Lovitt (1977), 27.

[26] Nancy Tuana, ed. (1989) Feminism and Science (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press); Sandra Harding (1991) Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

[27] Martin Heidegger (1990) Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der zLogik im Ausgang von Leibniz, Gesamtausgabe, Band 26 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann); Martin Heidegger (1984) The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, tr. Michael Heim (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press). Helene Weiss’ handwritten transcriptions of the lecture course were used in the Gesamtausgabe volume starting towards the end of §9, so it seems no coincidence that gender is addressed in the beginning of §10.

[28] GA 26, 172; 136-7.

[29] GA 26, 174; 138.

[30] Shiva (1988), 25.

[31] Shiva (1988), 23.

[32] Shiva (1988), 25.

[33] VA, 39; Lovitt (1977), 35.

[34]  Ibid.

[35] Kalle Lasn (1999) Culture Jam (New York: HarperCollins)

[36] Kalle Lasn (2005) Design Anarchy (Vancouver, BC: Adbusters Media Foundation)

[37] Walter Benjamin (1936) “L’oeuvre d’art à l’époch de sa reproduction méchanisée,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 5 (Paris: Felix Alcan), 40-68.

[38] Leni Riefenstahl, dir. (1935) Triumph des Willens (Potsdam: Universum Film AG).

[39] Theodor Adorno (1938) “Über den Fetishcharakter in der Music und die Regression des Horens,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 7 (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag), 321-355.

[40] O. P. Dwivedi (1980) Resources and the Environment: Policy Perspectives for Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart); Isabella Bakker (1994) The Strategic Silence: Gender and Economic Policy (London: Zed Books); C. Nesmith and P. Wright (1995) “Gender, Resources and Environmental Management” Resource and Environmental Management in Canada: Addressing Conflict and Uncertainty, ed. B. Mitchell. 2nd ed. (Toronto: Oxford University Press); Sandhya Venkateswaran (1995) Environment, Development and the Gender Gap (New Delhi: Sage Publications); O. P. Dwivedi, J. P. Kyba, P. Stoett and R. Tiessen (2001) Sustainable Development and Canada: National and International Perspectives (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press).

[41] FAO (1985) Women in developing agriculture. Rome: Human Resource Institution and Agrarian Reform Division.

[42] GPRS I Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy: 2003-2005. (2003) International Monetary Fund: IMF Country Report No. 03/56. Washington, DC: IMF Publication Services.

[43] Social Watch Coalition (2010) MDGs Remain Elusive. Social Watch: Poverty eradication and gender justice. Available at http://www.socialwatch.org/node/12082 [Accessed August 18, 2015]

[44] The phrase “mathematical projection of nature” first appears in Heidegger's work in §69(b) of SZ. Heidegger returns to the word Grundbegriffe, basic concepts, in a lecture course in 1941 (GA 51) wherein he considers basic concepts determinative not just of regional ontologies, but of the history of Western metaphysics. He begins with a saying from Periander that criticizes as unwise those who concern themselves with only a part instead of the whole. This text is thus the beginning of his criticism of the regional ontologies of the sciences that will culminate in “Science and Reflection” (VA, 41-66) in the claim that the sciences as sciences cannot be self-reflective.

[45] FD, 83; 305.

[46] H. S. Thayer, ed., (1953) Newton's Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his Writings (New York: Hafner Press), 25.

[47] Thayer (1953), 10. Newton's text is titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

[48] FD, 66-8; 286-8

[49] FD, 58; 277-78.

[50] GA 65, 163; 113.

[51] Gelassenheit (Pfullingen: Verlag Günther Neske, 1959), 17-8, hereafter G, followed by the pagination in German and English from Discourse on Thinking, trs. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 50.

[52] Shiva (1991), 29.

[53] Shiva (1991), 33.

[54] Shiva (1991), 35.

[55] Shiva (1991), 34.

[56] Shiva (1991), 44-45.

[57] Mies and Shiva (1993), 28.

[58] Martin Heidegger, “dichterisch wohnet der Mensch,” VA, 181-198: 191; Martin Heidegger (1971) “Poetically Man Dwells...,” Poetry, Language, Thought, tr. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row), 213-229: 217.

[59] Shiva (1991), 44-5.

[60] Mies and Shiva (1993), 23.

[61] Shiva (1991), 26.

[62] Qtd in Vandana Shiva (1991) The Violence of the Green Revolution (London: Zed Books), 26.

[63] Mies and Shiva (1993), 34.